Senate panel OKs medical pot bill

April 05, 2005

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger , Pioneer Press

Jerome Schaffer testified in front of a Senate panel Tuesday with pride, hope and a little fear.

A cancer sufferer, he asked senators to give seriously ill patients some protection from prosecution for using marijuana.

The 63-year-old military veteran told them he's used it, and it helps. He has continued to use it despite his humiliation at being arrested for possessing the illegal drug and his risk of further prosecution.

The Senate panel voted to bar such arrests and passed a bill to sanction marijuana's use for those with debilitating illnesses — the first committee vote on the measure in Minnesota after years of debate.

Backers say the bill probably won't pass all the legislative hurdles this year. Even if does, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he is unlikely to sign it into law.'I'm not for it. I think we have enough other medicines and pain relievers available that we don't need to use that one,' Pawlenty said Tuesday.

But those testifying before the Senate Health and Family Security Committee said other pain medications don't help them as much as marijuana does. And they said they came to marijuana as a last resort.

'During my second round of chemotherapy, I decided to try medical marijuana,' said Sue Wild, who has a cancer that has spread through her liver, bladder and colon, weakened bone marrow and lupus. 'I was initially skeptical, but I was willing to try almost anything at that point. To my surprise, a small amount of marijuana following a meal allowed me to keep food down.'

Wild said her prescribed anti-nausea medications were overwhelmingly powerful. Her doctor approved of her use of the illegal drug, she said.

'There are other pain medications that are currently available but they don't all work for all people… Marijuana has been proven effective for a number of patients,' said Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins and chief sponsor of the bill.

He said it is morally and ethically right to allow patients to use the drug that best helps them in their time of sickness and suffering.

The measure would 'do something to express our sense of compassion for that suffering and do something practical to address it,' Kelley said.

The measure, however, presents some practical problems.

It would allow people with specific debilitating illnesses, ranging from glaucoma to multiple sclerosis, to register with the Health Department in order to be able to possess marijuana. Police would be barred from prosecuting those folks for their possession of up to 12 plants or 2.5 ounces of marijuana.

No state law could bar federal authorities from imposing federal penalties on those registered patients for their drug possession. That means federal law enforcement could prosecute people for something that is legal in the state.

That conflict has led to a Supreme Court case. Two California women sued federal agents to stop raids on medical marijuana patients' plants. California is one of the 10 states that allow the use of medical marijuana. That case may be decided soon.

The Minnesota measure would allow others to provide marijuana to registered patients. The bill originally called those folks 'primary caregivers' but that terminology was changed in committee.

'I think we are using a euphemism here. It is a dispenser or supplier or distributor,' said Sen. Shelia Kiscaden, an Independence Party member from Rochester.

The measure also steered clear of requiring a doctor's prescription for the marijuana, since marijuana still would be an illegal substance. Instead, patients would have to supply their medical records or practitioners' certification that marijuana may help them in order to be certified.

The president of the Minnesota Family Council told senators the bill raises concerns about Minnesota's children.

'Legalizing marijuana, even for medical uses, sends the wrong message to kids,' said the council's Tom Prichard.

All of those concerns and complications likely will have to wait for next year's legislative grappling. For now, the measure's committee passage alone will have to be worth the risk that patients admitted they took Tuesday in order to testify.

'Well,' said Schaffer when asked about the risk. 'You've got to do what you think is right.'



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